Upheaval in Maine's Tourism Industry
Members of Maine’s tourism industry are reeling from a proposal to overhaul the state’s tourism office and programs. The proposal was announced hastily and without consultation with the office’s Tourism Commission — which would be abolished if the proposal is enacted by the legislature.
I first learned of the proposal on Monday (January 16) while my wife Linda and I were visiting the Inn by the Sea in Cape Elizabeth for our travel column. The Inn’s Marketing Director Rauni Kew, a member of the Tourism Commission, said she’d gotten an email a week ago Friday, informing her of the proposal that would abolish the Commission. She was not happy with the proposal or the way she found out.
Can’t blame her there. But as I’ve looked into the issue this week, I’ve found the tourism industry is divided on the proposal — pretty typical in my experience. Getting the folks in the tourism business — a diverse collection that ranges from high-end places like the Inn at the Beach to individual Maine guides — all pulling in the same direction is impossible.
Compounding the problem is the very limited amount of money available for tourism marketing ($9 million a year) forcing each interest to fight fiercely for its “fair share” of those dollars. One long-standing fight is between the coastal and inland tourism businesses.
For example, as I poked at this open sore this week, one coastal tourism business owner told me, “For the last five years, the state has been politically motivated to spend their marketing capital on the western/northern regions because those parts of the state have been suffering — good press for the state — but the reality is that the overwhelming draw for tourists to the state is the coast, and promoting your best asset brings a higher return on investment.”
Another member of the industry (not Kew) shared the contents of the message emailed to Tourism Commission members on January 6 by Carolanne Ouellette, Director of the Office of Tourism. Here’s Carolanne’s message, in its entirety:
“Yesterday a carry-over bill, LD 323, ‘An Act To Implement a Coordinated Strategy To Attract New Businesses, Expand Existing Businesses and Develop a Consistent and Recognizable Maine Brand’ was read in work session. The original language in the original carry-over bill, LD 323, has been repealed and replaced with language that was read in work session that now includes three tourism related parts: repeal of the tourism commission legislation; strengthening tie-in with the industry of development and administration of the strategic plan; and creation of an Office of Marketing within DECD (2 year sunset) that would include monthly meetings of state agency partners’ marketing staff to learn more about marketing efforts and budgets, discuss consistency in message/brand; find efficiencies and make a determination of whether or not this office moving forward makes sense.
“This proposed repeal of the commission and strengthening of the language to connect the industry to the administration and development of the strategic plan provides us with an opportunity to do a number of things: 1) Examine all the overlaps with current boards and initiatives and establish a more efficient mechanism. 2) Allows for flexibility – broader and/or more targeted industry participation depending upon the issue. 3) Show commitment to efficiencies. 4) Frees up staff time (over 400 hours) which could be re-allocated to presenting/working more directly to the industry (regionally, locally, organizationally) which would help to address some identified communication issues.
“Some of you may have already heard about the tourism commission piece and my apologies for not being the first to inform you, but I’m here to discuss all ideas, thoughts and comments!”
Rhonda Miller, the clerk for the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, told me today that the committee’s work session on LD 323 is scheduled for the afternoon of Thursday, January 26.
But as I was writing that in my schedule, I noticed that January 26 is the all-day annual Governor's Conference on Tourism, at Sunday River! Probably just a coincidence that the work session on a major tourism bill is scheduled for a day when all of the state's key tourism officials will be unable to attend. I alerted Rhonda to the problem, so perhaps the work session will be changed.